There's a tempting intuition that says high balances across a variety of programs are a goal worth pursuing, since they allow you to deploy the right rewards currency for the right job. That's never been my view: I prefer building up balances in programs where I have planned, or at least foreseeable, redemptions in mind. That's why I don't hesitate to accumulate Delta SkyMiles, since even if I don't have planned Delta travel, I fly Delta often enough that I'm certain to be able to redeem them at some point. The same is true with Hilton HHonors points: there's no risk that I won't be able to redeem them, since there are Hilton properties everywhere.
Of course, being focused on a small number of rewards currencies has a downside: by definition, it's more expensive to book flights if you don't have the currency that makes those flights cheapest.
For example, until March 22, 2016, American AAdvantage charges 67,500 miles to fly between the United States and Hong Kong in first class on their oneworld partner Cathay Pacific, with minimal taxes and fees.
That's a great deal, and if you have a slew of AAdvantage miles and a flexible-enough schedule, it's certainly the best way to get to Hong Kong. Since I don't hoard AAdvantage miles, I'm out of luck, right?
Not so fast.
British Airways charges a lot for long premium cabin flights
The conventional wisdom says to redeem distance-based British Airways Avios for short-haul domestic flights or a few select "sweet spot awards" that fall in the top of their distance bands, and redeem region-based awards for longer and premium cabin flights.
And indeed, if you had huge quantities of every rewards currency, for any given award you would want to redeem the fewest miles or points possible, using a tool like AwardAce.
But if you don't want to accumulate huge rewards balances speculatively, you have another option: simply overpay.
British Airways doesn't charge that much for long premium cabin flights
A Cathay Pacific first class flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Hong Kong costs 140,000 Avios each way, plus about $50 in taxes and fees:
After American Airlines' March 22, 2016, devaluation, they'll charge 110,000 AAdvantage miles plus the same taxes and fees. Of course, the American award, in addition to being cheaper, allows you to depart from anywhere in the United States, not just the west coast, and connect onward from Hong Kong.
140,000 Avios cost $1,400 in cash if you transfer them in from an Ultimate Rewards account, giving you about 6.66 cents per Ultimate Rewards point in value for that $9,367 flight.
If you earn your miles and points primarily through manufactured spend, 140,000 Avios are likely easier to earn than 110,000 AAdvantage miles, thanks to the Ink Plus bonus categories of office supply stores and gas stations and the quarterly Chase Freedom bonus categories allowing you to earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent in rotating groups of merchants.
But even more importantly, using an Ultimate Rewards point transfer to British Airways to book this flight keeps your overall miles and points strategy simple. Instead of signing up for one or more American Airlines co-branded credit cards, requiring multiple credit pulls and bearing the risk of your application being denied, you can keep doing what you're doing: aggressively earning Ultimate Rewards points in bonus categories.
If you end up finding award space for dates that work for you, transfer the points and make the reservation. If you don't, transfer them instead to Hyatt, United, Southwest, or even redeem them for cash. You haven't lost anything by earning "extra" Ultimate Rewards points. You just have to slightly overpay for your award when you decide to book it.
Speaking of award availability...
There's a reason that I've used Cathay Pacific as my example throughout this post: it's because award availability on Cathay Pacific is quite scarce, and can't be searched on American's website. Instead, you're likely going to be using British Airways to search for award availability anyway, since they display it online.
Not only that, but British Airways allows reservations to be made further in advance than American does! Take another look at the search result above: it's for a first class flight departing December 10, 2016. That's 354 days from now, while American only allows reservations to be made through November 17, 2016 — 331 days from now.
As you'd expect, award availability tightens up quickly once American's award booking window opens. Given that Cathay Pacific frequently makes just a single first class award seat available, those 23 days may spell the difference between getting your first class award or having to sit in business class.
In that sense, you aren't overpaying for Cathay Pacific first class by using British Airways Avios; you're simply paying the only price at which the first class seats you need are, in fact, available!